“Nearly two-thirds of Americans are now smartphone owners, and for many these devices are a key entry point to the online world,” says the Pew Research Center. Likewise, of the 64% of American adults who own smartphones, 15% have limited options for accessing the Internet beyond their mobile device, 10% have no broadband at home beyond their mobile data plan, and 7% have no broadband at home and suffer limited options to access the Internet.
At the same time that Americans are becoming increasingly reliant on mobile technologies to access the Internet for everything from social networking, general communications, and life-enhancing educational, economic, and social benefits, demand is increasing at an exponential rate. By some estimates, we will need an additional 350 MHz of spectrum by 2020 to accommodate projected growth rates.
Mindful of the need for a more ready spectrum pipeline, Congress has embarked on an effort to increase the amount of available spectrum – the invisible radio waves that power wireless services – to address consumer needs over the next five years. This past March, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hosted a hearing entitled “Next Steps for Spectrum Policy” during which participants testified about the imminent need for more spectrum. Just last week, the Committee hosted a hearing on “Improving Federal Spectrum Systems” and heard testimony related to rising spectrum demand, existing policy options at the federal level, and potential legislative remedies to increase spectrum availability.
Congress’ goal with these hearings is to find ways to make current spectrum allocations more efficient at the same time that it makes more spectrum available. In what has become a characteristically partisan environment, increasing the spectrum pipeline is one area that currently enjoys bi-partisan support.
Per Congress’ previous direction, in February of this year the FCC conducted the AWS-3 spectrum auction in which it raised nearly $45 billion for the U.S. Treasury. Likewise, in April, the FCC voted to allow spectrum sharing between the Department of Defense and commercial operators of 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band (the “innovation band”), and next March, the FCC will conduct the Broadcast Incentive Auction in which broadcasters will be compensated for relinquishing their unused and underused spectrum assets.
With its latest hearings, Congress began evaluating additional legislation to further increase spectrum availability. The Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015 (H.R. 1641) creates a new incentive auction for federal users to spur more rapid deployment of unused spectrum and increase efficiency in spectrum use. The Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, a discussion draft, encourages ‘flexible-use licenses’ through competitive bidding or auctions. In the coming weeks Congress will continue to evaluate these proposals – their outcome will have a profound impact on the ways the mobile industry, and thereby consumer use, is able to grow in years to come.
As Jeffrey H. Reed, Willis G.Worcester Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, aptly noted during the latest congressional hearing, “establishing the right spectrum policies encourages innovation to happen here in the US, putting us in the leadership position to develop and deploy these new technologies. Policy changes should happen quickly to respond to demands of greater wireless traffic and to take advantage of new technology opportunities.”